As the home of the Serengeti
National Park, Ngorongoro
Crater and a string of other world-famous wildlife sanctuaries, Tanzania is
well-established as one of Africa's premier safari destinations. But the country
is more than a series of wildlife trails.
Hike through flower-clad valleys in remote Kitulo National Park; explore
the magnificent ruins of Kilwa
Kisiwani; snorkel in the fish-filled waters of the Mafia Archipelago; spot
water birds in lovely Rubondo
Island National Park; and discover Swahili culture in the old trading
outpost of Pangani. Tanzania’s off the beaten track sights are every bit as
alluring as the country's famous safari circuits.
Kitulo National Park
Tucked away in Tanzania's southwestern corner is this gem
of a park, full of flower-clad meadows and secluded valleys. It is especially famed
for the more than 40 species of orchids that carpet its grassy expanses, together
with irises, aloes, geraniums and many more. The December to April rainy
season, when the park explodes in a profusion of colour, is the best time to visit.
But even during the dry months of June through September, wildflowers dot the
meadows and shades of blue and violet blanket hills that roll into the horizon.
The closest major town to Kitulo is Mbeya, about 90km to the west, where you
can organise transport up to the 2,600m Kitulo Plateau and the park entry gate.
Once inside the park, the best way to explore is on foot. Bring your own food,
camping equipment and supplies, as well as a compass or GPS.
The small island of Kilwa Kisiwani, located about 300km
south of Dar es Salaam, was once the seat of sultans and the centre of a vast
trading network that linked the old Shona kingdoms and gold fields of Zimbabwe with
Persia, India and China. Sail on a dhow from the mainland to the Unesco World
Heritage Site, and explore the well-preserved ruins of one of the most
significant groups of Swahili buildings on the East African coast. The
buildings date from the 12th to the 19th Centuries, and some have been
beautifully rehabilitated. The 15th-century Great Mosque, once the
largest mosque in the region, has still-intact columns and graceful vaulted
roofing. Nearby is a well-preserved smaller mosque, also dating to the early
15th Century. There is no accommodation on Kilwa Kisiwani, however the mainland
gateway town of Kilwa Masoko has several modest hotels, an airstrip with
regular flights to Dar es Salaam and nearby Mafia Island, and daily buses to
Dar es Salaam.
Quiet and often-overlooked, the Mafia Archipelago is
an ideal destination for relaxing and getting acquainted with the Swahili
coast. Stroll along sandy lanes through coconut palms on the main island of
Mafia. Explore tiny Chole Island, with its atmospheric 19th-century ruins and the
Mjini Eco-Lodge. Take a dhow across to Jibondo – an island famed for its
boat builders -- or to lush Juani, with ruins, water birds and green turtle
nesting sites. Or sail out for a morning of snorkelling around Mange, a
pristine sandbank populated only by sand crabs and water birds and surrounded
by clear, aqua waters. Mafia is reached by a 20-minute flight from Dar es
Salaam or Kilwa. The main island has a small but fine collection of upmarket
lodges in the town of Utende on its southeastern side, overlooking Chole Bay. From
Utende, it is just a few minutes sail across the channel to Chole and Juani
Islands, and about half an hour further to Jibondo. All the hotels in the
archipelago offer dhow trips between the islands.
Rubondo Island National Park
Fish eagles circle overhead. Herons and storks wade in
the shallows. Sitatungas hide among the reeds and small waves lap gently on the
sand. Rubondo Island,
nestled in the southwestern corner of Lake Victoria, is one of Tanzania's
least-visited national parks and also one of its most tranquil. Spend days bird
watching, walking and hippo- and croc-spotting. At night, listen as a symphony
of insects, bats and other night creatures fills the star-studded darkness.
Rubondo can be reached by boat and vehicle within half a day from either of the
cities of Bukoba or Mwanza, or by short charter flight from Mwanza. There is
one lodge on the island, Rubondo Island Camp,
as well as park-run cottages.
Sleepy Pangani town may not look like much today. But,
in its mid 19th-century heyday, it was a terminus of the caravan route from Lake
Tanganyika, a major export point for slaves and ivory, and one of the largest
ports between the city of Bagamoyo and Mombasa, Kenya. In the old part of town,
near the Pangani River, a few buildings from the German colonial era and old houses
of Indian traders bear cobwebbed witness to this part of history. In addition
to its historical appeal, Pangani is a convenient jumping-off point for many
other nearby attractions. Fine, palm-fringed beaches run for kilometres north
and south of town. Zanzibar Island, visible on clear days across the channel,
is a short flight or boat ride away, and Saadani
National Park, a two-hour's drive south, makes for an easy overnight
excursion. An hour's drive north of Pangani are the Tongoni
ruins, which include the largest collection of Shirazi pillar-style tombs
(most dating to the 14th or 15th Centuries) on the East African coast.
The article 'Tanzania without the crowds' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.